Parking fees could transform Great Smoky National Park visitor experience

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Jul. 27—The Great Smoky Mountains National Park system is poised for a burst of growth that will not only address a backlog of unmet needs but position the most-visited national park to better meet visitor expectations.

Cassius Cash, who has served at the park superintendent since 2014, spent most of the weekend in Haywood County visiting communities that border the park in North Carolina. On Saturday night, he was on hand for the Friends of the Smokies major fundraiser held at Cataloochee Ranch.

During meetings with a variety of community and elected leaders, Cash discussed a proposal to collect parking fees in the park, how the ties between the park and surrounding North Carolina communities could be strengthened and the long-unattended needs within the park that must be addressed.

Should a parking fee of $5 a day, $15 a week, or $40 a year be implemented, it would be a game-changer for the most visited national park in the U.S. Over the last decade, visitation increased by 57% to a record 14.1 million visits in 2021.

"I strongly believe we should protect the visitor experience, and we need the appropriate number of people to do that," Cash said, pointing out that while visitation increased exponentially, the park's budget is up just 7%. "Our budget was $19 million seven years ago. It's $21 million today."

That reality has forced park leaders to make tough calls on how to meet growing demands, and the efforts are falling woefully short, he said. The modest parking fee proposal, if implemented, and would still be an amount far less than what's charged at other national parks. The average entrance park entrance fee is between $12 to $15 per visitor, but the parking fee would be a charge of just $2 a visitor, he added.

When Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed from land in both North Carolina and Tennessee, entrance fees were prohibited. The parking fee proposal has been found to be a legal way around that. Cash said there have been 60 community meetings about the proposal and the public comment period generated more than 3,700 comments, which are still being compiled.

Early results are promising, though, and indicate there have been responses from every state in the union, he said.

The resolution was sponsored by N.C. Rep. Mike Clampitt, who introduced a resolution that passed the House opposing the parking fees, an action that followed resolutions from Haywood, Graham and Swain county commissioners also opposing the measure.

The bill passed the house but wasn't acted on in the Senate by July when the General Assembly wrapped up most of its business for the session.

Cash said there were parts of the resolution that were inaccurate, something he found terribly disappointing since he met with Clampitt to address his concerns about the parking fee proposal before it was introduced and provided him with the correct information.

Should the fees be approved, it would allow the upgrades for the 26 aging water and sewer systems within the park that are almost 100 years old and reaching the end of their useful life.

The extra funds would also provide more rangers and staff to enhance the visitor experience and address safety issues.

"If there's one thing that keeps me up at night, it's a fatality in the park," Cash said. "When you have the number of visitors that we do and a reduced workforce, prevention measures get short-changed. The best safety practices are those in place before someone is killed."

With the park's 100th anniversary coming up in 12 years, Cash spoke of his commitment to leave the park better than he found it.

"We do what we can to show we love the park while we're here," Cash told a small group gathered at Waynesville town hall Friday. "With fees, we can show our love for the park after we're gone."